RICHMOND, Va. -- Raphael Matos knew he could drive a race car, and he had the record to prove it -- six championships in a variety of go-kart series in his native Brazil.
After a decade, though, what he ached for was a chance to prove his talent on a grander scale. When he convinced some small sponsors to help him chase his dream in 2003, he headed for the United States with a little bit of money and a whole lot of faith.
Six years later, he's 27 and nearing the top of the open-wheel ladder in this country.
He's got a full-time ride in the IndyCar Series, is a top contender for rookie of the year at the season's midpoint and has a record of achievement that suggests the best is still to come.
"Determination. I think that's the key," said Andre Serra, who gave Matos a job in a go-kart shop after he arrived from Brazil. "The guy, he knew for a long time, 'I want to be a race car driver, and I will be a race car driver, and I'm going all the way to the top."'
Matos lived with a friend from Brazil at the start, used $50 to buy a bicycle and rode it 15 miles each way to his job as a mechanic in Miami. The commute served as his fitness program and he raced in the Skip Barber Series on weekends, winning the 2003 championship.
The title earned him a $150,000 scholarship up to the next level of open-wheel racing, the Star Mazda Series, but there was a catch: It costs twice that much to fund a team.
"I was lucky enough to find a team that had the other half of the money," Matos said. "We had a really tight budget. We never tested. We never did anything. We had a few podium finishes, a couple of pole positions and we finished fourth in the championship that year."
But Matos found himself without a ride for the following year until another team in the Star Mazda Series came along with an offer, and he had no choice but to agree to their terms.
They said, "You drive for us one race, but you also have to come and coach our second driver for the whole year for free. I said, 'OK. No problem.' I had nothing," Matos said.
He foiled that plan by making it hard for the team to take him out of the driver's seat, winning his first race, and then his second, and third, and fourth, to earn a contract.
"I ended up winning the championship," Matos said.
The logical next step up the ladder was the Champ Car Atlantic Series, and Matos headed to California for a two-week tryout with Sierra Sierra Enterprises in Minden, Nev.
Among those also participating were Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal, two up-and-comers whose pedigree made them the open-wheel equivalent of NASCAR drivers named Petty and Earnhardt.
"Raphael had the fastest time, he listened the most, he did everything the way that we wanted so we thought we'd give him a try," said Diane Kottke, one of the team owners.
"He beat them not just by a little bit; he beat them by a lot."
The contract with Sierra Sierra in the development series for Champ Car allowed Matos to finally give up his job at the go-kart shop and concentrate on his racing career.
The team won one race in 2006, finished fourth in points and re-signed Matos.
In 2007, he won six times and dominated the championship, winning easily.
He "blossomed and just took off," Kottke said. "He was just absolutely a superstar."
The title came with a $2 million scholarship, but the Champ Car Series went bankrupt, leaving Matos again ready to take the next step up but searching for a team.
He wound up in the Indy Lights Series -- the IndyCar Series' equivalent to the Atlantic Series -- with Andretti-Green Racing. It was a "sidestep," Matos said, "but in the end it worked out well for me because I won the championship and proved I could be fast on ovals."
It also earned him an interview with Steve Luczo and Jay Penske, co-owners of the upstart Luczo Dragon Racing team, who were looking for a driver for the 2009 IRL season.
He made their decision easy, especially when his eyes grew wide at the mention of their commitment to teaming with sports figures such as Donovan McNabb, Shaquille O'Neal and Wayne Gretzky, and supporting their charities.
"When he found out about the charity aspect, he was like, 'Do you think we can also do something for charities down in Brazil?' and we were like, 'OK. He gets it," Luczo said.
"He's a franchise player and just someone we can build a team around," Penske said.
Through nine of 17 races, Matos is 13th in the points. He has three top-10 runs, with a best finish of sixth at Milwaukee, and trails Robert Doornbos by one point for rookie of the year. Penske -- the son of famed race team owner Roger Penske -- remains upbeat.
"He's won at every level he's raced," he said. "Let's just hope it happens soon."
Matos hopes so too, but pauses to laugh at the road he has taken.
"I'm sure a lot of people that saw me at the go-kart track working, they didn't have any idea, maybe because I was in that situation, that I had the talent, I had the desire to win," he said. "I'm sure they never expected to see me here, being in that position, a go-kart mechanic struggling to make a living, but I was racing, man. I never stopped racing."